Scientists believe they have at long last solved the puzzle of what caused the catastrophic die-offs of endangered saiga antelopes on the steppes of Kazakhstan earlier this summer.
State-run Khabar TV reported on August 4 that the death of the roughly 134,000 saigas was caused by a disease that provokes high fevers, painful swellings and shortness of breath, and can lead to death within 24 hours.
“The cause of death of the saigas is hemorrhagic septicemia,” Steffen Zuther, a German researcher and the international coordinator of the Astana-based Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative, told the TV channel.
Hemorrhagic septicemia — which scientists believe was rapidly spread across the steppe by ticks in May — is a form of pasteurellosis, a disease that killed nearly 12,000 saigas in a 2010 epidemic.
Kazakhstan’s government has not yet confirmed the diagnosis. Bakytbek Duysekeyev, an Agriculture Ministry official, told Khabar that research is ongoing and that the results of that work will be collated in the fall.
The disease has wiped out almost half of Kazakhstan’s population of saigas, distinctive creatures with long, humped noses that allows them to filter air during the dusty, summer months and breathe warm air during the freezing winters.
Before the misfortune struck this year, the country’s population stood at around 300,000, according to government estimates. Astana’s figures are higher than the estimate of 265,000 produced last year by the international Saiga Conservation Alliance after an aerial study of roaming grounds in Kazakhstan.
This calamity has proven disastrous for conservation efforts to restore the species, which has been listed as Critically Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List.
Conservationists had previously reported something of a success story in Kazakhstan’s saiga recovery, with numbers rising more than tenfold by last year from a low of 21,000 in 2003. By then, the population had plummeted from the one million saigas estimated to be roaming in the country in 2000.
The survival of the saiga has been threatened by loss of habitat and poaching for its horns, which are valued in Chinese medicine and are smuggled across the border to China, where they fetch large sums.
There are no reliable estimates for the size of the global population. The antelope also roams remote areas of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Mongolia, and Russia, but Kazakhstan has by far the world’s largest numbers.